March 31, 2013

Grinding it out in Virginia (Day 4)

Anglers were still reporting very slow shad fishing, but action did picking up each day toward the evenings when water had warmed up. We were also expecting a bit of rain showers toward noon and Pat suggested that the warm rain would raise the water temperature a bit.

With that in mind, we decided to use the morning low tide opportunity for a Northern Snakehead hunt. A week ago, Pat fished at his favourite snakehead location and had a few follows. We were hoping to see a few fish.

A short wade across the creek and we reached a warm water discharge. The bottom is muddy with some weed growth. Although many Largemouth Bass congregated in this area, Pat noticed that other fish species such as carp, koi, and killifish were largely missing. The majority of prey items of the Northern Snakehead were the killifish. With a lack of prey, we did not see a single snakehead after 2 hours of searching. Since the tide was rising, it was time to leave if we wish to cross the creek in dry fashion.

A quick stop at Pat’s apartment later, we were on our way toward the Potomac to a popular location known as Chain Bridge. Upstream of the Chain Bridge, a set of rapids slows the upstream migration of shad. Shad, Blueback Herring and Hickory Shad are the early arrivals while American Shad would join the run a few weeks later.

The rapids define the Fall Line of the Potomac and the river carved deep into the bedrock. For anglers, the climb down to the riverbank can be treacherous. Large boulders, loose rocks and muddy soil were made even more challenging to navigate when wet. Under a light rain, our trio cautiously descend to the waters edge where we picked a boulder for the optimal casting position.

Our ultralight rods were rigged with 4-6lb mono to fish small shad darts or 1/16oz jigs with 2” twister tails. On my rod, I tied on a small pink shad dart with another 1/16oz jig and green/chartreuse twister tail about 2 feet above the dart. The lures were cast into faster current and slowly retrieved into the current seams. Shads often rest in the slower water along the current seams. In many aspects, their upstream movement mirrors many other migratory fish such as steelheads and salmon.

On one of my first few casts, my line had hung up on a branch upstream of my position. After I twitched the rod to free the line, I reeled the lure in quickly while jigging the rod tip to prevent the lures from snagging the boulders on bottom. The lures were about 15 feet from shore when a shad attacked it! Unfortunately, the hit was short and there was no hookup.

I tried a jigging retrieve for about 20 minutes without any further hits. A change in presentation was needed. While speaking to the people at Fletcher’s Boathouse the day previous, we learned that shad prefers a slow presentation. Boat anglers often quarter cast the shad darts downstream and retrieve with an extremely slow pace. I started to cast the dart beyond the current seam and allowed the lure to swing back into the slow water. I’m borrowing the downstream swing technique from my fly fishing toolbox.

Surprisingly, this downstream swing worked rather well. I started to get the odd hits and missed a few fish before one was finally on the line. Unfortunately, the lures often tear out of the soft mouths of these Hickory Shads.

Meanwhile, Michael who was fishing upstream made a small move, made his first cast, and hooked and landed his first Hickory Shad.

These shads seemed to move in small school. I would get a few hits or a hookup within short intervals between long lulls of silence. After half a dozen short hits and two missed fish, I finally had good hookset on a fish. Hickory Shad are amazingly strong and acrobatic fish. Charging runs are punctuated with a stunning aerial display. In every aspect, these fish are mini versions of their tarpon relatives! Hickory Shad (Alosa mediocris) - species #305.

Our timing was not the greatest, but both Michael and I were happy to check off our Hickory Shad target.

We fished for a couple more hours and I missed a few more hits, lost one fish and landed one more Hickory.

At around 2pm, the fishing came to a halt. Even this far upriver, the tidal influence was evident. It was interesting that during the fury of activity, the tide was approaching high tide. The current was a bit stronger and the current seam was closer to shore. As the water receded a foot on the start of the outgoing tide, the current slowed and seam moved out a little further from shore. We decided to move upstream of the bridge to fish a large eddy right below the set of large rapids.

This area was even more treacherous to fish than our downstream location. The rocks were wet with a layer of slippery fine silt and grime. Care must be taken when moving about. A fall into the river could be fatal.

Perched precariously above slippery boulders we pounded the water over and over. Michael was first to hook up with a Quillback Carpsucker that was snagged in the back. This would have been a very nice species to fish for if these fish were actually willing biters. They are very difficult to catch due to the cryptic diet and feeding behaviour.

Finally, I started to get a couple of shot hits and then lost a couple of fish. An hour later, I finally hooked up a Hickory Shad after a sharp hard hit. Strangely, this fish was hooked on the top of the head.

As it was approaching 5pm, we decided to call it a day. Between Michael and I, we landed 5 Hickory Shad while Pat was just enjoying the day. To Pat, this was a very slow day of shad fishing since 100 fish day are not uncommon during the peak of the run. We could only imagine the arm burning fun on one of those days.

We thought about fishing for Blue Catfish in the afternoon, but with limited amount of daylight time, we decided to simply relax for the afternoon.

Back at the apartment, Pat sent Michael and I to order some great kabob dinner from Kabob Palace in Alexandria. This little joint was super busy on Easter Sunday. We had an hour wait for our food, so Michael and I took a little trip to the Tidal Basin on recon mission for future opportunities. As the sun was setting, we only had a brief look at the area, but at least we had an idea the span of that basin and the amount of fishable waters.

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